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Interview: Where were you when the Wall…

An interview with American writer and former East German resident Joel Agee.

In the early 1940s, Joel Agee’s Jewish-American mother Alma left New York and her husband (American writer James Agee), taking herself and baby Joel south of the border to Mexico to live with her new partner, German writer and celebrated socialist Bodo Uhse. Seven years later, the patchwork family moved to Germany. From 1948 to 1960, Joel Agee witnessed life in the newly founded GDR from the perspective of a child and an adolescent, attending school first in Groß Glienicke and later in Pankow. In his memoir Twelve Years: An American Boyhood in East Germany Agee chronicles the life of a sensitive boy against the backdrop of an increasingly rigorous yet strangely privileged environment. Agee left Germany just before the Wall went up, returning just before it came down. Himself an award-winning writer, he has since returned many times to Berlin. On his latest visit, 20 years later, EXBERLINER questioned him about memory, politics and the serendipity of coincidence. “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” When you look back at your childhood, does it seem like a foreign place? Yes and no. In a way, the past is home, in the sense of Heimat, one’s place of origin. In another sense, it’s a place one’s left behind long ago and re-visiting it is indeed like coming to a foreign country. For someone who, like myself, repeatedly moved from one country and one culture to another, the notion of foreignness becomes rather complicated. Each foreign place becomes a new Heimat. I tend to feel fairly comfortable in, and at the same time, quite outside of anywhere I am. What aspects of growing up in a socialist environment contributed to the formation of your personality? A great deal. It was German, for one. It was Prussian. The idea of socialism, of communism, was something I received primarily from my parents, and only secondarily from the society I lived in: the idea that a better, more just, more humane society could be engineered by political arrangement, that human nature was malleable in that way. As for the influence of growing up in a German intellectual household, that too was considerable: a certain reflectivity, Nachdenklichkeit, reliance on thought and intellect – for better and for worse – that was the atmosphere in which I grew up, the tenor of many conversations that took place in our household. On the other hand, there was my American mother, a Bohemian free spirit who loved jazz, loved to dance, wore flowers and colorful strands of wool in her hair. She was a very different kind of influence on me, and equally formative. I’m surprised that you reference Prussia as a cultural paradigm, more than the more immediate past of National Socialism. The Nazis were a past that had been, supposedly, overcome. Prussia: that was discipline, rigor, the need to attend to rules, all of which did not suit me at all, temperamentally, but that was the surrounding I grew up in, a collective consciousness imbued with those values and principles. Every time I come to Germany my body language changes. In certain situations, going into a bank, let’s say, if there’s any difficulty with officious circumstances, needing to know just how things are done, I get what I call my DDR-Reflexe. It’s like an anxiety that everybody who is watching is going to judge whether I do things correctly or not. Lenin once made the quip that there would never be a revolution in Germany because Germans are afraid to step on the grass. The East Germans kept this tradition going. Eventually, of course, they did step on the grass. Clearly you consider your childhood privileged… Oh, sure. Was there any sense of privilege in growing up in the wider context of what later became the GDR? The word ‘privilege’ comes with different colorations in different contexts: as an unearned advantage over others, or as good fortune for which one is grateful. I’ll go with the second meaning. I think that, to grow up in the context of a secular religion, believing in it with the naive faith of a child, and then to experience firsthand the un-tenability of that faith, is to be spared the fate of embracing certain kinds of political stupidity to which even intelligent people are prone. In Paris, in 1968, there was this slogan: ‘politique d’abord.’ I think it’s a terrible slogan. Political passion has to be mistrusted in any guise, particularly the more idealistic ones. That is an instinct that I developed from the way I grew up. That was a privilege. You left in 1960 and didn’t see the Wall go up. Where were you when it came down? The New York Times Magazine asked me to write a story about the developments taking place in the GDR just before the Wall came down. So I came to Berlin to write this report and I went to the Deutsches Theater, where theatre people from all over the country were holding a public forum. But nobody at that time thought that the Wall was going to come down. Nobody … And then, on November 9, as I was writing the piece in New York, I saw the miracle on TV: East and West Berliners cheering and dancing on top of the Wall. I called the Times. The editors said: “It’s over. We can’t publish this any more. We would need a completely different story.” Then I called my friend Jan in Berlin, a former school friend from the East who had fled to the West six years earlier. The moment he heard my voice, he laughed. He said he had been drinking wine, celebrating, when his 16-year-old son from the East called from a phone booth just around the corner: “He’ll be here any minute,” he said. “Can you imagine? I haven’t seen him since he was 10!” I told Jan I needed his help with my article: “I have to say something sensible about what just happened. I’m stunned.” He said: “Joel, the only sensible thing to do is celebrate. Tell your readers that. Tell them that what we’ve just seen is greater than logic. ‘The dance of the contradictions’ – do you remember that wonderful phrase by Marx? This is it. The contradictions are dancing. The doorbell’s ringing, my son is here. Open a bottle and drink with us!” So there it was, the natural end to my article. The Times editors liked it too.